Marilynne Robinson. Lila: A Novel. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 272 pp. $26.00.
When I heard award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson was writing the backstory to Gilead, I wondered what Bible story she might choose for a theme. Gilead, the story of John Ames, an elderly husband of a young wife and son, drew themes from Abraham and Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael. As he waited for his approaching death, the Rev. Ames ruminated on the prospect of leaving his wife and the son of his old age without provision.
In her next novel, Home, set in the same time and place, Robinson explored themes from the parable of the prodigal son as she told the story of Jack Boughton. Lila, Robinson’s newest book, tells the story of Ames’s wife from her childhood to the birth of their child. I am glad I didn’t waste my time speculating on the Bible passage at the heart of this novel, because I would never have guessed it.
And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born.
And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live. (Ezek. 16:4–6)
Lila considers this story her own. As a small child, she is neglected and abused until a rough but benevolent woman called Doll steals her away from the squalid house where she had been dumped by relatives. Lila lives a hardscrabble life with Doll and a handful of migrant workers. They sleep on the ground and eat whatever they can barter. In spite of the fact that Doll can give her nothing of comfort or wealth and little in the way of demonstrable affection, Lila recognizes Doll’s life-giving love. Doll took her up like the child in Ezekiel’s vision, and commanded Lila to live.
When Lila wanders into Gilead, she has lost Doll, and she only wants to be left alone. Contrary to her wishes, she is rescued again, this time when John Ames notices her. (In case you’re afraid I’m spoiling the book, I’m relating only what is revealed in the first chapter and has already been told in Gilead. The real plot of Lila is the internal narrative and growth of her character.) Her story continues to follow Ezekiel’s vision when Ames takes her to be his wife:
Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord Jehovah, and thou becamest mine.
Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil. (Ezek. 16:8–9)
John Ames takes Lila a second time from shame and squalor. He not only loves his wife, he baptizes her—not something husbands ordinarily do for wives—and in doing so, he enacts Ezekiel’s vision. He also portrays Christ’s love for his church, of whom Paul writes that he “gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:25–26).
But I’m misleading you—I’m making Lila sound like one long happy ending. Lila’s troubles do not end when she finds balm in Gilead. She stubbornly, at times cruelly, resists Ames’s love, even though it’s offered with no strings attached. Lila is accustomed to being a drifter, and she doesn’t know how to let her guard down. Her loneliness paradoxically compels her to push people away. Scabs and callouses can hide tender wounds. As she says at one point, “When you’re scalded, touch hurts. It doesn’t matter if it’s kindly meant.”
Like her husband, Lila thinks a lot about theology, but her thoughts do not resemble his. While the Rev. Ames seems unable to ask a theological question without considering what Calvin, Barth, or Feuerbach might have to say about it, Mrs. Ames is as uneducated theologically as anyone can be. She expends hours pondering the plight of the migrants she grew up around. Like her they were hard-bitten and world-weary, but unlike her they never darkened the door of a church or read the Bible. She wonders if they will be damned, and even ponders whether she’d rather be damned along with them than safely kept among the elect.
Lila expresses some unorthodox ideas, but they didn’t spoil the book for me in the way they would have if I’d felt like Robinson was using her as a mouthpiece for heresy. Rather, as Lila reads the Bible for the first time, starting with Ezekiel then Job (instead of Matthew as her husband suggests), she encounters the strangeness of God and tries to work him out according to her own logic. Lila has far to go before she grasps the justice of God, and even farther before she understands his mercy. Lila doesn’t come at the Scriptures from a position of arrogance, but of ignorance, a condition of which she is keenly and painfully aware.
Lila is not a cheerful book, but it is a beautiful book. Robinson writes as convincingly as a sinner lately-loved as she did in the voice of a third-generation pastor. As I neared the end of the book, my reading slowed—not because I grew disinterested, but because I was sorry to see it end.